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Authors: Matt Wallace

Small Wars


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Now—Cardiff Airport, Wales

“And what do you do in America?” the customs agent asks Ritter, staring at the nondescript man's passport.

“I'm a steward. I work for a catering company in New York City.”

“Is that like a host, then?”


The customs agent looks up from the official document and stares at him. There's nothing aggressive or short in Ritter's tone, but his passivity, something wholly and comfortably removed, is somehow always more disconcerting for people.

“I'm head of stocking and receiving. You could say I keep the cupboards full,” Ritter explains just as passively.

Recognition that's really little more than a scant point of reference widens the custom agent's eyes.

“Ah, I see. And are you here on vacation, then?”

“No. Business.”

“Right. Well, if you're planning on returning with any of our local fruit and veg or the like you know you'll have to declare it.”

“I'm not here for either. No worries.”

“All right, then.” Ritter's passport is returned. “Welcome to Wales, Mister Thane.”

“Thank you.”

Ritter stashes his passport and picks up his aging rucksack.

*   *   *

Within two hours of arriving in Wales, Cindy O'Brien is convinced the Welsh language has been conceived solely as a practical joke played on tourists.

“They're making that shit up as they go along,” she insists. “There's nothing even vaguely consistent about a single motherfucking word I've heard said or written on a sign so far. And that includes every word spoken in English.”

There are five of them in the rented Ford Transit cargo van: Ritter and the three other members of Sin du Jour Catering & Events' stocking and receiving department, and the freelance alchemist who has joined them for this particular assignment.

Ritter is behind the wheel. Moon, diminutive and poorly groomed and perpetually clad in a dirty T-shirt representing some bit of cultural arcana (today it's a Turkish soccer team) is riding shotgun. This was agreed upon by the others less because he called it and more to convince him to
calling it every time they crossed a new time zone.

Cindy sits behind him, earbuds firmly in place as she attempts to finish the audiobook of Toni Morrison reading her essays that she was unable to finish on the plane due to a constant stream of disruptions around her.

Ryland Phelan, the rumpled-from-head-to-toe Irishman seated next to her both on the plane and in the van now, caused most of those disruptions.

Utterly filling the final row of seats behind them is Hara, the mountainous fourth member of Ritter's team and the eternal stoic.

Ryland drunkenly cranes his neck to focus on Cindy in the loosest possible way. “That presupposes the Welsh are in possession of something recognizable to the civilized world as a sense of humor. I can't imagine a more dangerous assumption.”

“Don't even get me started with you again, Jesus of Nazawrecked,” she warns him.

“What?” He seems genuinely confused. “What have I done?”

Cindy yanks her earbuds out. “Are you kidding me? Are you so wasted you don't remember being drawn down on by a damn air marshal midflight?”

Ryland's red eyes widen. “Was that who that irate gentleman was? Well, that makes much more sense, then.”

After having his beverage service cut off less than two hours after takeoff, Ryland began requesting cups of water and changing them into white wine.

The only reason they weren't all detained upon arrival was because, when confronted, the air marshal couldn't find any hidden supply or alcohol or a corresponding empty vessel.

“Did we have to bring him?” Cindy asks Ritter. “He couldn't have just given you instructions and some of his funky stones?”

“Growing gold from bare rock is a little advanced for me, Cin,” Ritter informs her.

Ryland is genuinely offended. “I would expect more than a cheap rebuke such as that from a fellow countryman … person … thing. You know.”

“I am none of that.”

“You may not possess my rustic brogue, but
speaks of Irish ancestry.”

“Black Irish,” Moon adds with his typical lack of taste, sensitivity, or actual knowledge.

Cindy thrusts the flat of her palm into the back of his head hard enough that he has to shake off the blow afterward.

“That's not even what
black Irish
means, you little shit.”

“She hit me again,” Moon complains to Ritter.

“You deserved it again.”

“Children,” Cindy curses them under her breath, replacing her earbuds. “All of you. Fucking children.”

2011—Las Vegas, Nevada

The ballroom of The Pirate's Doubloon Hotel and Casino, miles from the Strip.

Home to countless cold-roast-beef-and-string-bean Shriners convention dinners, arts and crafts expos, and wedding receptions bereft of a single tuxedo.

A vinyl banner that was printed at FedEx Kinko's proclaims the event to be “
Hot Zones
3rd Annual International Combat Knife-Fighting Tournament” in a discontinued Windows font. About two hundred people are in attendance for the popular so-called “mercenary” magazine's keystone yearly event. The walls are lined with merchandising tables crewed by knife dealers, survivalists handing out pamphlets ranging from useful to paranoid to batshit, and several companies hocking paintball warrior weekends and related “experiences.”

Ritter enters the scene just in time for the finals of the tournament that has lasted for two days and drawn competitors from all over the world (and in true “all over the world” fashion, 90 percent of those competitors are Americans, who've been joined by a handful of Scandinavians on holiday, a surly German war fetishist, and a Filipino ex-soldier whose entire village took up a collection to send him to the tournament).

The final two competitors stand shirtless in the ring. Cindy wears a basic black sports bra while her male opponent is allowed to freely flaunt his nonfunctioning nipples. They both have numbers scrawled on their stomachs in thick red marker, and they're armed with knives fashioned from hard nylon that are typically used in training and demonstrations.

They wear no protective gear.

This isn't a safety-oriented crowd.

Their ring is composed of four elongated plastic folding tables arranged in a haphazard square, allowing them just enough room to maneuver. Two referees in
Hot Zones
T-shirts observe the match from different angles.

Cindy's opponent is a determined-looking Jicarilla Apache who has traveled to the tournament with a small battalion of supporters from the reservation, all of them wearing T-shirts that declare them “Team Perea.”

When one of the refs gives them the command, the two finalists begin slashing at each other, dipping forward and leaping back with frantic speed. There's some technique to be seen among the spastic feints and strikes, but actual combat is a messy, disjointed affair. Speed and determination often win out over casual martial-arts training.

Cindy is a pit bull, her knife hand obsessively going for her opponent's throat. Each time the plastic blade connects with flesh the referees separate the two of them and award her a point.

They fight to five points.

Cindy harmlessly slashes Perea's throat five times without positive contact from his blade even once.

When the final point is awarded no one in the crowd seems particularly happy she's won.

Unsurprising, considering she's one of maybe five women in a ballroom of two hundred men.

The top prize is fifteen thousand dollars. Within four hours of accepting her title and check Cindy has gambled half of the money away in the casino. Ritter observes her from a safe distance the whole time. She pounds rum and cokes with alarming rapidity and rarely speaks to anyone around her.

When she anoints herself too buzzed to make rational card-playing decisions, Cindy retreats to a video poker machine far away from the nearest other patron.

That's where Ritter approaches her, taking a seat in front of the machine one removed from her own.

“You want something?” she asks him after a few awkward minutes.

Ritter nods. “I do. I want to hire you.”

“What I look like to you, dude?”

“A soldier.”

That statement briefly takes Cindy aback, and then she looks down at the exposed ink on her arms. An Explosive Ordinance Disposal “crab” badge is tattooed on her right forearm while a navy anchor whose shaft is a lit stick of dynamite opposes it on her left.

“All right,” she says, more composed. “So what?”

“So I'm going to talk for sixty seconds, and if you want to hear more I'll be in the McDonald's in back of this shit-hole waiting with two cups of coffee. Fair enough?”

Cindy shrugs. “Whatever.”

“You're what, six months out? You're drifting. You're drinking too much. You're gambling too much. You can't remember the name of anyone you've fucked since your discharge because you never really asked their name in the first place.”

Cindy starts at that, angrily, but when she searches his expression for some bullshit gender-based judgment she finds none.

She realizes he sounds like he's speaking from experience.

She realizes he's one soldier speaking to another.

“You're still a soldier,” he continues. “That's all you want to be. You're not built for civilian life, but that's where you are. You need a mission. But with your service record the only mission anyone is going to give you would be wiring the car of a drug lord or sweeping the caravan of some profiteering corporate fuck overseas. And you don't want that. Because despite why they booted you, you have a conscience.”

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